At the Biennial meeting of the International Association of Women Judges, which was held virtually in May, I became the International Director for North America from Canada. At that same conference women judges from Afghanistan spoke about their need for help with education and technology, and they spoke of their fear for their safety as the Taliban was advancing in their country. I agreed to sit on a committee to help support the Afghan women judges.
In July we met virtually with the Afghan Women Judges’ Association. Thirty of the Afghan women judges were in Kabul. The meeting had been planned to discuss ways we could assist the Afghan women judges with education, technology, etc. However, when the Afghan women judges got the microphone they begged for our help, they spoke of their fear for their lives and they asked us to be their voice to tell the world of their plight. They asked us to try to ensure that women’s rights were included in the peace talks that were supposed to be taking place. They talked about the two women judges ambushed and killed on their way to work in January 2021. They spoke of the Taliban advancing and taking over parts of the country. Some of them had fled to Kabul where they thought they were safe. They said the Taliban was emptying jails in the areas they took over. Women judges were receiving threats from the Taliban members, ISIS members and drug lords who they had convicted and sentenced, or ruled against in family matters.
Judges from New Zealand, Australia, the UK, the US, Spain and me from Canada, started working with the Afghan women judges to ensure they had electronic copies of documents such as passports, judge ID cards, and records of any threats made against them for future refugee claims. Like everyone else, we thought we had more time. Then on August 15, 2021, Kabul fell and the largest prisons were emptied. Many of the women judges left their homes and went into hiding.
During the time the US controlled the airport, we were able to get some seats on planes thanks to different countries, particularly Poland. Getting into the airport was more difficult than getting the seats on planes. Some of the judges had to wade through sewers with little children, some were beaten, some family members had guns held to their heads, all were pushed and shoved in the crush. A bomb was set off at one of the gates and other threats required us to call back women judges and their families who we had told to go to the airport. One family got to the gate only to be told the adults could enter but the three-year-old and three-month-old without passports would have to stay behind. With help from the country whose military was at that gate, we were able to get the family into the airport.
For someone who does not like suspense movies or spy novels, I suddenly felt immersed in one. We were giving out passwords to say, telling the women judges to make marks on their hands, or to wear certain colours (colours of flags of countries) to stand out to those looking for them at the airport gates.
When the US left Afghanistan we thought we would not be able to get any more of the judges out but then opportunities came through the International Bar Association, other NGOs and foundations. Through our efforts and the efforts of others, most of the women judges/family members are out of Afghanistan and we are still working daily to evacuate the remaining approximately 95-100 of the 270 women judges.
We are also working to find permanent homes for the Afghan women judges who are out. Many are in “lily pad” countries waiting for a resettlement country. The women have been through such trauma. The current state of uncertainty is very detrimental to their mental health and feeling of well being. Some of the judges who are safely out of Afghanistan have displayed some demanding behaviour. At first the behaviour was troubling and confusing. Why would they exhibit such behaviour now that they were safe in a third country? It did not take much time to realize that these women had just lost the careers that some of them had worked twenty years to achieve. They lost the ability to make a difference for women. They lost their homes. The lives of those they loved were in danger because of their work. They left behind family and friends they may never see again. They lost everything in a few days. Now they face the prospect of rebuilding a life in a new country with a different language and culture. It is unlikely they will work in the career that they loved. I wonder how agreeable and docile I would be if I were in that situation.
As I was writing this, we learned that the aunt, uncle and cousins of one of the women judges in Greece had made it to Turkey and tried to go to Greece by boat. The boat capsized and the judge’s aunt and uncle drowned. The remaining family was taken into custody.
Through our efforts and the efforts of others, visas have been obtained for some of the judges in many different countries. The Afghan women judges are starting to move to those countries. In 2022 we hope that some of the Afghan women judges will start coming to Canada.
The CCIAWJ Resettlement Committee, chaired by Sheri Donegan, has been working hard to prepare for the arrival of the Afghan women judges and their families in Canada.
The IAWJ Afghan support committee will not stop working until all the women judges and their families who want to leave Afghanistan are out.
As my colleague from Spain ends every message “we continue”.
International Director of the CCIAWJ